Megan Andersen of Port Washington had been to Europe and the Caribbean, but she always wanted to visit Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam were high on her list of desired travel destinations.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, was not. But when an opportunity for a river cruise came along, she and her husband Nels jumped at the chance.
They returned this month after three-week trip of a lifetime.
“I was always interested in the culture and the food,” Megan said of Southeast Asia.
Of those, she and Nels got plenty. Hearing hours of Buddhist prayers, seeing thousands of Buddha images, eating seafood soup for breakfast and feeding elephants were all on the list of experiences.
The trip started with a flight from Abu Dhabi to Thailand, which included flying over part of Iran. Megan said she was amazed at the country’s typography of mountains and desserts.
The Andersens were told they would be less enthralled with bathrooms at the Bhano Airport in Thailand and were encouraged to use the facilities on the plane.
Safety was never a concern, but criminals were treated harshly. A sign at the airport warned that people caught with drugs could be put to death.
After a one-week stay in Thailand, the Andersens traveled on a boat that had 34 passengers and a crew of 30.
They cruised the Irrawaddy River, which Nels compared to the Mississippi. It’s as narrow as a few hundred yards at some points, and much wider at others.
“There’s areas where it’s miles across,” he said.
The river, brown-colored due to silt, featured currents so “insane” that the ship wouldn’t travel at night, and a local captain boarded the ship every 40 miles to help navigate the next section of the river, Megan said.
When the boat wasn’t moving, the Andersons went on excursions with guided tours during the day.
They saw homes with bamboo siding. Those along the river were on stilts due to flooding. Other people lived in tents near the water and would move as the water level rose.
The Andersens learned about Buddhism, which is practiced by 85% of the country. People were allowed to sleep in monasteries and were often fed there or by neighbors.
“You never find anybody hungry,” Megan said.
Those short on food figured they did something bad in a past life. Their lives were dedicated to good works to come back well in the next one.
At night, chanting prayers could be heard for hours. Nels taped a portion on his cell phone. A public address system helps lead Buddhists in their daily ritual.
Locals were enamored with westerners, especially those with blue and green eyes, a rarity in Myanmar.
The Andersens asked before they took pictures of the natives, who were amazed when they saw their photos on the camera.
Ten days later, the Andersens arrived in Mandalay, a city of more than 1 million people that had more modern amenities than the surrounding villages.
The dynamic was unique. Mandalay doesn’t have fast food, but it has a brew pub, beer garden and traffic lights.
“Then you’d see a water buffalo eating in the median,” Nels said.
Sharing the roadway with the buffalo were ox carts — one couple took one across town for $4 — horse carts and cars. Traffic was on the busy and disorganized side.
“It’s like a NASCAR race,” Nels said.
One of Myanmar’s biggest industries is teak wood, and the Andersens got to feed some of the elephants who help harvest it. The creatures are let to roam free in the jungle at night before they are brought back to work during the day. They wear bells to easily be found.
At the end of the year, Myanmar will stop exporting teak to save its forests, Nels said.
The country is still under a military dictatorship and there were areas tourists were not allowed, but the Andersens said they never felt unsafe. They never got any pickpocket warnings given to Thailand visitors.
“Never did we feel unsafe anywhere,” Megan said.
But they didn’t always feel comfortable in a climate of 90 to 110 degrees and high humidity.
Cuisine was different in Myanmar than Thailand. While Thai food is hot, Myanmar’s is more homey and warm, Megan said.
Turmeric is a popular flavoring for beef, lamb and chicken. Rice and seafood were popular, including a noodle soup of dried shrimp and fish for breakfast.
The local rice beer selection offered two kinds, which were both light and refreshing, Nels said.
Meals always came with tea. Myanmar is not known for its coffee.
Food was cheap. Megan and Nels had an entire meal for $15, including drinks and dessert. Tipping was even cheaper. It’s not normal or expected, which the Andersens said created some confusion.
Life outside Mandalay was more primitive. One-lane dirt roads took people to villages with no sewers or trash pickup.
But satellite dishes, cell phones and solar panels —especially for places without power —were popular.
People were welcoming of westerners.
“They were always proud to show us their homes,” Megan said.
The Andersens visited other cities via “no-frills airports” that didn’t check liquids or require passengers to take off their shoes. Each traveler received a sticker representing their flight and listened for boarding calls via megaphone. They also visited Inle Lake, one of their favorite parts of the trip that Nels compared to Horicon Marsh.
Fishermen showed incredible coordination, using a long paddle that stretched from their shoulder to their leg. As they paddled with one leg, they tried to scare fish into their nets with the rest of their bodies.
Megan, who works as a travel agent, said the trip isn’t for first-time travelers. She recommends always taking a guide and spending two weeks in the country to allow for a full experience.
The Andersens also suggest to visit Myanmar soon. Influence from the U.S. and China are coming quickly.
“We feel so lucky because we got to see this,” she said. “In five years it could be completely different.”
Image Information: Nels and Megan Andersen of Port Washington.